“The fantastic, we have seen, lasts only as long as a certain hesitation: a hesitation common to reader and character, who must decide whether or not what they perceive derives from ‘reality’ as it exists in the common opinion. […] If he decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we say that the work belongs to another genre: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous.” — Tzvetan Todorov

Key Terms: Genre, Fantastic, Uncanny, Marvelous

Tzvetan Todorov’s The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (translated from the French by Richard Howard), has fundamentally changed elements of my perspective on what I shall, for the moment, rather sloppily call “fantastical fiction.” In fact, after reading this book, I find that I must begin to revise terminology that I have been blithely using for years now. So, first a brief examination of the work–then I’ll move on to the effect it’s had on me and how I can think about it in terms of my comps questions.


Todorov begins with a brief discussion of the history of genre, notably examining and critiquing the work of Northrop Frye on the subject. Todorov disagrees with Frye’s approach on structuralist grounds; he finds that Frye does not delve enough beyond the surface into the underlying patterns that constitute a narrative.  Todorov continues his discussion of genre in the broad sense, and while I found it interesting, it drifted outside my particular interests, and so I will let much of it go without comment; however, I do have to observe that Todorov may be neglecting (or perhaps just disagreeing with) a more symbol-driven, Jungian-style approach to literary analysis. But, I did not read this book as a broad discussion of genre, so I will move on to his discussions of fantastical fiction.

Beginning in the second chapter, Todorov begins to frame his definition of the Fantastic. Immediately, I must note that his definition varies strikingly with the one I have been using. I have used the term “Fantastic” to refer to symbolic or narrative elements that step beyond that which is known to be “realistic” or plausible within the laws of reality as best one can understand them from known science. For Todorov, however, has a much more narrow definition. He breaks fiction that strains the boundaries of realism into three categories, and only one is called the fantastic. To summarize, here are those distinctions:

  • The uncanny occurs when the narrative seems to stray beyond the realm of what is possible or realistic, yet in the end the events prove to be merely unusual as opposed to “supernatural,” a term that Todorov applies equally to fantasy elements (such as werewolves or vampires) and science fiction elements (i.e., intelligent robots and starships).
  • The marvelous occurs when overtly supernatural elements are brought into play, such as in myth or fairy tales. Much as the uncanny might at first seem impossible, the marvelous might also begin by straddling the line of plausibility, but in the end it will clearly resolve itself as existing beyond the limits of what is known to be possible or realistic.
  • The fantastic is rather trickier, existing only for whatever length of time that the reader/and or character(s) must question whether their circumstances are merely uncanny or have strayed into the domain of the marvelous. In fact, Todorov’s conditions are most successfully met when the reader identifies so strongly with the character that both question the nature of the events together.

Todorov describes the “formula” for the fantastic as “I nearly reached the point of believing.” It exists solely within the hesitation in the decision between uncanny and marvelous–and within whatever ambiguity is left for the reader at the end of a narrative. As he expands upon this definition, Todorov puts forth three essential conditions for the fantastic to exist (33).

  1. “First, the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural and supernatural explanation of events described.”
  2. “Second, this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus, the reader’s role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work–in the case of naive reading, the actual reader identifies himself with the character.”
  3. “Third, the reader must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as ‘poetic’ interpretations.”

The second criterion is noted as common to the genre but not essential to it, and the third is quite straightforward–if there is no question of whether a work is intended to be realistic, such as in an allegorical folk tale or use of poetic license, then no uncertainty exists as to the natural or supernatural qualities of the narrative. (I believe that arguments could be made in some cases to complicate this point, but as I am less immediately interested in it, I will move on.) It is the first item that catches my interest, in part because I feel it comprises the core element of Todorov’s fantastic–and also because I feel it resonates very strongly with certain ideas of J. R. R. Tolkien’s that I have been working with for years.

With the statement that “the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons,” Todorov calls to mind Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” (from Tree and Leaf, available in The Tolkien Reader), in which Tolkien defines his concept of the “Secondary World,” indicating the importance of keeping a fictional world internally consistent–that is, setting up the rules of the world (however supernatural they might be) and then treating them realistically, operating within them for the duration of the narrative. I will of course expand on this idea when I review “On Fairy Stories” for this list, so I will not delve too deeply here, but I could not help seeing a parallel here. Apart from this, one can take the key element of Todorov’s fantastic to be, as previously described, rooted in the uncertainty between natural and supernatural, between uncanny and marvelous.

It is also important to note that the fantastic can exist within a narrative that, in the end, proves not to be–that is, within the context of a detective story, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, both the characters and the reader hesitate during the course of the story, uncertain whether the apparently spectral hound might be supernatural or whether it has, as Holmes himself insists on proving, a perfectly natural explanation. Of course, in the end, the narrative proves Holmes right–but, even if in the end it (as with many detective stories) proves to be uncanny rather than marvelous, it still has moments of the fantastic when the reader is called to wonder. It may also be worth noting (as Todorov does to some degree) that the reliability of the narrator, particularly in a first-person narrative, may have an impact on how we interpret the story. For instance, the reader most likely trusts what Watson, and by extension Holmes, show and tell them, but if one has cause to doubt Watson’s word, then the fantastic may endure to the end of the story, even though the hound has been ostensibly debunked. Todorov does go into some detail discussing the way that specific textual devices–use of the first person and of relative terminology, such as “as if,” for example–can be used in the fantastic, which might merit further examination for those interested in a “structuralism of the fantastic.”

Todorov does offer a discussion of the marvelous, noting sub-genres such as the hyperbolic marvelous (wherein the only supernatural elements are exaggeration, such as in many tall tales), the exotic marvelous (wherein the supernatural is presented as merely another facet of an unknown place, such as the belief that “monsters” dwell beyond the edge of the map), the instrumental marvelous (wherein devices are referenced that are not possible at the time but might become possible with technological development), and the scientific marvelous (more widely known as science fiction, which is closely tied to the instrumental marvelous). He notes that the “pure” marvelous does not offer such explanations, which seems to again echo Tolkien: The “pure” marvelous exists within its own Secondary World, rather than being bound to the known world through exaggeration of the known, gaps in knowledge, or as-yet-undeveloped technology. (I may return to this idea, as I believe it may hold a key link to distinguishing a theoretical, rather than market-driven, approach to defining the difference between science fiction and fantasy, but for now I will let it be.)

In the latter portion of the book, Todorov addresses the questions of what the fantastic does and why one might utilize it–key rhetorical considerations, to be sure–though he leaves plenty of room to supplement his ideas. (Wayne C. Booth and Kenneth Burke offer up some very interesting answers to the questions of what devices fiction employs and why they work as they do–which, again, I will be reviewing in future posts. With the help of Tolkien and some others, I will relate those ideas to fiction that works within the realms of the fantastic and/or marvelous.) The functions of the fantastic, as Todorov describes them, are as follows:

First, the fantastic produces a particular effect on the reader–fear, or horror, or simply curiosity–which the other genres or literary forms cannot provoke. Second, the fantastic serves the narration, maintains suspense: the presence of fantastic elements permits a particularly dense organization of the plot. Third, the fantastic has what at first glance appears to be a tautological function: it permits the description of a fantastic universe, one that has no reality outside of language; the description and what is described are not of a different nature. (Todorov 92)

So, the fantastic invites the reader, through uncertainty and a desire to determine the nature of the narrative as “natural” or “supernatural,” to emotionally invest in the work, and it heightens suspense in a way that purely realistic, uncanny, or marvelous fiction cannot by playing on that uncertainty. It also creates a Tokienian Secondary World, here referenced almost overtly, that must exist wholly within the imagination. I am not certain I entirely agree with Todorov’s implication that, within the realm of the fantastical imagined, signifier and signified are less separate than in the “real world.” Rather, I believe that the relationship simply functions along a different causality. However, that too lies somewhat outside my focus, so I will note it as interesting and proceed. Unfortunately, I found the final chapters of Todorov’s work less useful and satisfying than the earlier sections of the book.

In discussing why one might write of the supernatural, Todorov acknowledges the possibility of using supernatural fiction to explore themes that might be culturally taboo, such as vampires instead of necrophilia or magically transforming men-into-women instead of homosexuality. (One imagines he might not be prepared for a deeper delve into queer theory, at least not as of that writing.) However, this seems to require either a directly allegorical or poetic interpretation of the supernatural elements, which runs directly contrary to Todorov’s own criteria for the fantastic, seemingly seeking to set a difference between the two. Further, Todorov suggests that fantastical fiction is no longer necessary due to the emergence of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic criticism. He asserts that “psychoanalysis has replaced (and thereby has made useless) the literature of the fantastic” (Todorov 160). It is not the project of this post to refute this claim, but as I have noted, other writers have done much more to explain the functions and effects of fiction, including supernatural fiction. I will note, personally, that I entirely discard Todorov’s notion, as I entirely discard the apparent notion that the only reason to work within the fantastic or supernatural is to grope after psychoanalysis.

Todorov does note a connection between writers of the fantastical and writers who have a significant interest in telling stories, which is not always considered the most “literary” approach to writing, but he does relatively little with effectively examining supernatural fiction itself. Todorov seeks to discuss a breakdown of the supernatural and how it can be classified, but I find his efforts more interesting than particularly conclusive. He is still largely grounded in the classification of supernatural creatures from folk-tales, and while yes, vampires and werewolves certainly still exist in the contemporary popular culture and yes, Todorov acknowledges the complexity possible within these categories, he does not address even the complexities introduced in the Twentieth Century by writers such as Tolkien. (Todorov references Lovecraft, but he does little or noting with the Lovecraft mythos.) In our current world of fantasy sprawl, it is clear that supplementary materials are needed to discuss the structure of supernatural themes.

Personal Impact

While I clearly found certain elements of Todorov’s work more engaging than others, he did define a central point for me in how I think about fantasy and/or the fantastic. What we normally term “fantasy” roughly corresponds with much or all of Todorov’s “marvelous” fiction. In general, contemporary fantasy does not seek to challenge the reader’s expectations or, in many cases, even invite the sense of wonder that has sometimes been heavily identified with the genre. I even wrestled with this problem in my last post. Perhaps I can find an answer to this question by thinking of fantasy–which I have in the past tended to lump into my own term “The Fantastic”–as quite distinct from the fantastic, as Todorov describes it. This shift of terminology is for me at once superficial and profound. On the one hand, I’m merely adjusting a word I have been using because I have found another thinker who used the term in a more precise fashion, and I believe the distinction is worth observing. On the other, I am continuing to formulate a distinction between the “fantasy story,” a genre narrative with elements that we assume to be fantasy-oriented (dragons, wizards, magic, etc.) and the truly fantastic, which invites uncertainty and questioning.

I have not yet determined whether or how I will alter my own terminology on the subject, but I do find that it is “evolving.” I am not specifically or deeply invested in the question of whether characters or reader find the events of a narrative to be plausibly “natural” or “supernatural,” but I am quite interested in considering what it is the method of fantasy, of what Tolkien called mythopoeia–myth-making. Generating familiar narratives against a sensational backdrop that employs the tropes of the fantasy genre is not, I think, engaging in mythopoeia–at least, it is not deeply doing so. So many stories of elves and wizards and vampires exist that they have become stock characters. There is little fantastical power left in them–they have become common tropes, and it is only by particular Art (as Tokien used the term) that they are again infused with whatever power fantasy holds. Perhaps it is some echo of Todorov’s fantastic–the challenge to what we know and expect–that holds the resolution to this dichotomy. Perhaps innovative fantasy, fantasy as a method instead of a genre label, requires us to question what is possible, to deviate imaginatively from expected narrative tropes. Even if we are certain that something is supernatural, if it asks us to imagine something in a new or different way–that embodies some element of the fantastic, as Todorov put forth the term, but I believe I will need to find a new way to describe it–a new name. Perhaps I will learn this name from another reading, or perhaps I will have to find my own term for it.

Notes on Comps Questions

Rather than individually answer each question as it goes, I will attempt to briefly take what I have already observed from Todorov and apply it to my comps questions.

  1. To my first question, I will note that Todorov addresses several possible answers. First, the fantastic as a function of breaching taboos addresses the ability to create a Secondary World where questions that could not be asked within the Primary World might be entertained. Beyond that, the very notion of the fantastic requires transformation; the uncertainty it requires hovers along the edge of transformation, converting the uncanny to the marvelous and/or vice versa.
  2. I believe this runs directly into an answer for my second question, as we see the fantastic itself can be literally a practice of transformation, a way to transform the known world to the supernatural–or back. Thinking also of Todorov’s discussion of the marvelous, we can bear in mind that he specifically designs his model around the idea that the world can be transformed to allow for what was previously marvelous.
  3. I’m not certain that Todorov’s work applies particularly to the question of fluency, but certainly the freedom to transcend genres and preconceived assumptions holds a resonance with questions of pleasure and inclusion. (If pleasure is oriented to one’s own interest and being included, then certainly Todorov invites one to play with expectations. It is not a far leap from Todorov’s uncertainty and hesitation to pausing to consider the power of any transgression, not merely the supernatural upon the natural.)
  4. I’m not certain that Todorov is specifically challenging the status quo any more than he is adhering to it, but he does discuss a practice that invites inquiry and treats uncertainty as a valuable state. If we treat the “natural” and the “supernatural” as different versions of the status quo (perhaps considering them as different sides of the same narrative tropes in “realistic” and “fantasy” fiction), then his deviation is in complicating the difference, looking to the space between those spaces. (And by that definition, my as-yet-unnamed “fantasy as method” concept would represent such a deviation from the status quo.)
  5. If embracing uncertainty as a state with unique powers and properties and acknowledging the importance of ideas that exist between the assumed borders of other ideas may be called transformative, then certainly Todorov offers that kind of thinking. Once again, this is something that must be extrapolated upon, but without a doubt there is room to draw many useful connections here.



Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca: Cornell U. P., 1975. Print.